Art in America (October, 1998)

"Suk Ja Kang-Engles at Lowe Gallery"
(Atlanta, Georgia)

Author: Rebecca Dimling Cochran

From a distance, the paintings of Suk Ja Kang-Engles appear as abstract patches of color. Light hues fade into dark, the edges blur like faint clouds in the sky. The close-valued or monochromatic surfaces exude a cool intensity. On closer inspection, the works reveal an additional dimension in the form of language. Kang-Engles layers the canvases with paper printed with 16th-century Korean essays and poems detailing Confucian moral standards. This support is then covered with paint over which she hand writes autobiographical texts using the ancient vocabulary. No longer in use today, the characters read merely as marks running in vertical columns across the surface.

Kang-Engles, who is a student of ancient Korean literature, uses this vocabulary to detail frustrations she feels as a woman and as a Korean who has lived in the U.S. for eight years. In some of the newer paintings, glimpses of these emotions appear as English words hand-painted over the Korean. Collusion IV includes a block of English text, which reads as a one-sided conversation confronting a male subject we cannot see. The words fade in and out of the Korean characters that lie behind, turning complete thoughts into fragments.

In the diptych Didactic III, the word "stillness" repeatedly emerges from a ground of Korean characters like a continuous line drawn on a grid. The minimalistic composition, painted in muted colors, actually serves to reinforce the definition of the word. Yet, through the process of repetition and obfuscation, the expression becomes meaningless. The letters in the English word begin to read much like the Korean characters: merely marks on a page. Adjacent to this complex layering of paint is the diptych's second monochromatic panel. Here, short pieces of yarn are loosely pasted over the entire canvas to create a three-dimensional surface, which is then covered with paint. Formally, the panel does not add to the work. In fact, it may actually detract from the complex striations of the adjoining grid. But for the artist, the presence of the yarn is symbolic of her attempt to sever certain ties to her former life. Just as she repeats words to render them meaningless, the process of cutting thread becomes a type of ritual designed to assuage the pain of the past.

COPYRIGHT 1998 (Art in America, Brant Publications, Inc.)